Werewolf 1981

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A naked American man stole my balloons.

1981 was perhaps the finest year ever for werewolf films. Joe Dante’s The Howling, released in April, and John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London, released a few months later in August, feature landmark werewolf transformation effects by Rob Bottin and Rick Baker, respectively. Both are well-written horror films that pay homage to earlier classics (e.g. George Waggner’s The Wolf Man, 1941), and are notable for having screenplays with observant comedic elements. Werewolf in London is one of the finest fusions of comedy, horror and music ever constructed. Back on it’s original release I was so impressed that I hid in the theater and watched it in back-to-back matinee showings. The deadpan ending still floors me.

Over the years I’ve become less enchanted with the film -David’s dreams now seem excessive, being excuses to show off Rick Baker’s creatures. The Nazi (?) monster machine gun assault on David’s family seems out of place. I’ve never really understood the Frank Oz appearances (the Muppets playing on TV). Why is he also in The Blues Brothers (1980)? I guess I prefer Oz puppeteering Yoda. Some of the humor in Werewolf in London now seems forced (Jack’s second appearance when he is waving a Mickey Mouse toy –Hi David!). Was Landis bashing Disney? I dislike the bumbling inspector fumbling with bedpans bit. The guy reminds me of a poor man’s John Cleese (On a tangent note, Steve Martin is not funny as Inspector Clouseau). I still don’t get Jack’s opening “knock knock” joke, and I have never laughed at the pub bloke’s Alamo story. Perhaps we’re not supposed to. (I did laugh at grisly Jack the corpse watching a porno in a Piccadilly Circus grind house).

For me the best scenes occur in the environs on the moors and around the Slaughtered Lamb. These scenes remind me of a Hammer film, with a strong cast of familiar British character actors playing darts and throwing back pints. Back in ’81, Jack’s inquiry about the pentagram on the wall made me uncomfortable. “You made me miss… I’ve never missed that board before…” Like Tarantino, Landis is adept at staccato changes in mood. Werewolf in London is a roller coaster ride -one moment we’re laughing and the next scene the monster devours a victim. And what a werewolf!

Werewolf in London is a technical achievement. The werewolf sounds and vocalizations might be the finest ever created for a werewolf film. Kudos to foley artist Richard Lightman for the special sound effects. There’s even a “bus scare” (ala Val Lewton’s Cat People, 1942) where a werewolf attack abruptly cuts to a snarling lion.

I also like the supporting work by the incredibly sexy Jenny Agutter as Nurse Price (she can read me Mark Twain anytime), Griffin Dunne as Jack, and John Woodvine as the inquisitive Dr. Hirsch. Woodvine is especially convincing as the doctor. I wish he had made more films. For all my griping, An American Werewolf in London was a daring and original film and remains one of the all-time werewolf classics. The first transformation during an unusual version of Sam Cooke’s Blue Moon is unforgettable. The sequence established a benchmark for all future werewolf films, and I still prefer the makeup effects to any modern CGI renders.

By contrast, I saw The Howling at a drive-in theater and remember that I was a bit disappointed, no doubt comparing it to the more theatrical and entertaining Landis film (I saw Werewolf in London first). Today I prefer The Howling in being the superior horror film. I like Bottin’s interpretation of an upright wolf man rather than Baker’s squatty, wolverine-like quadruped. Baker allegedly also consulted on The Howling, so I’m not sure who came up with the original design.

The Howling benefits from a fine supporting cast, especially Roger Corman veteran Dick Miller as antiquarian book merchant Walter Paisley (his character in A Bucket of Blood, 1959), Patrick Macnee as Dr. George Waggner, Slim Pickens, Kevin McCarthy, John Carradine, Kenneth Tobey (cameo as a cop) and then unknown stage actor Robert Picardo (as the lycanthrope creep Eddie Quist). Also look quick for Roger Corman waiting on a phone booth. John Carradine is fun as a lycanthrope who is much in preference to the old ways. To hell with eating these cows. And how can you go wrong with Slim Pickens as a werewolf sheriff? Much like film-buff Landis, Joe Dante throws us everything but the kitchen sink and Robby the Robot (we do see him in Gremlins). These guys must have had fun making these films.

An early work-in-progress of The Howling featured stop-motion animated werewolf sequences by David Allen (check out the supplements on the special edition DVD). Dante ended up cutting these scenes, but there is one animated werewolf briefly visible toward the end of the film. I like the inclusion of this full-body werewolf. It’s effective in reminding us that we really only see glimpses of Bottin’s werewolf as body parts -claws, a snarling maw, the upper torso, one terrific shot of the elongated legs, throughout the film. You really never get a great view of the monster. The werewolves are creatures in our shadows. Modern studios pushing CGI as a cost-saving measure miss the point. It’s not imperative to show the monster in detail, just show enough at key points in the film. Case in point Wolfen.

The third “werewolf” film was Wolfen, released in July of 1981. Only Wolfen isn’t a werewolf film; it’s an extremely well-made crime drama with supernatural and political elements. To me, Whitley Strieber’s story unfolds like a mystery. It’s a bit like Them! (1954) with cops and specialists attempting to unravel the origins of a force they cannot grapple with. Wolfen is usually lumped in the werewolf genre due to the presence of….

Well, I won’t spoil the ending.

Expecting a monster movie, I hated this film when it was originally released. I kind of understand what horror fans must have felt like seeing Curucu: Beast of the Amazon (1956) for the first time. However, watching this movie 30 years later, Wolfen might be the best film of the three. It’s a well constructed and visual film. Albert Finney and Gregory Hines make a superlative team as inspector and pathologist, respectively. Their performances are better than any done in The Howling or Werewolf. I also like the underrated Tom Noonan (The Monster Squad, 1987; Manhunter, 1986) as an introverted zookeeper/mammalogist. He plays the role quirky enough that his character seems plausible, rather than cliched. Wolfen works both as a mystery (we want to learn what the Wolfen are) and as a political film. By the end of the movie we understand the message. In a condensed form Wolfen could have been an expensive episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker. The story could easily have involved Whitney Stiebers gray aliens from Communion. The Wolfen are ancient entities.

People unfamiliar with this film, when they notice it, will invariably ask “What are you watching?” or, “Is this Predator?” This is due to the striking perspective view of the Wolfen, which uses an optical effect similar in appearance to infra-red thermography. Much of the film is shot from the perspective of the Wolfen. Wolfen see differently than humans. We are the outsiders. They were here before us.

The film feels a lot like a documentary. No wonder. Director and cinematographer Michael Wadleigh was best known for his work documenting Janis (1974), Woodstock (1970), and Mingus (1968). These are personal films. Wolfen feels personal to me. It offers a whole lot more than prosthetic monsters. It made me think.

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One Response to “Werewolf 1981”

  1. Daniel Brenneis Says:

    Extremely well written essay. I haven`t watched “The Wolfen” in YEARS, Barry. I need to watch it again before deciding if I agree with your opinion on it being the best of the 3 films……

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